Book reviews – No enemies to the left

The Next City
The Next City
September 21, 1998

Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century by John Ralston Saul (Viking, 1997. 546 pages) $36.99

THE ORIGINAL SIAMESE TWINS OF JOHN RALSTON SAUL’S TITLE ARE Louis-Hyppolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin, whose binding handshake in 1842 signified, in Baldwin’s words, a “union of hearts and free born men.” The French and English they represented and Canada’s native people formed a complex triangle that survives today. But complexity calls for balance, and here Saul sees a growing rift between the mythology of Canada as an incomplete experiment subject to change through evolution and the reality of Canada as “corporatist, interest based, antidemocratic, determinist, and thus passive.” He says we’ve been dominated by countries — Britain and France — that “incarnate the complete experiment.”

Britain, a completed experiment? The British tradition that Canada adhered to until 1982 is rooted in the citizens’ inherent freedom and responsibility, a sovereign Parliament, and an evolutionary common law that keeps pace with the times. The French tradition, by contrast, is state directed — the citizens’ rights are defined, conferred, and may be withdrawn by the state. As Alain Peyrefitte wrote in The Trouble with France: “We leave it to the state to care for our happiness — and reproach it for not making us happy enough. We beg from it what we are unwilling to obtain for ourselves — and snarl at it for not giving it to us, or not giving us enough of it, or fast enough.” That was published in 1981, a fair description of public life in Canada today.

Saul makes much of victimization, with corporatism being his victimizer. He finds “it difficult to imagine how democracy can prosper, so long as corporations maintain their artificial status as persons.” In the past decade, our elites have “embraced the rise of corporatism,” he says, resulting in “a false conformity to a false universal reality.” But Saul fails to recognize that corporatism does not stand alone. Industry must join two other powerful forces — labor unions and the state — for an economy to suffer monopolistic effects.

Saul fails to distinguish between the government that serves as referee between our conflicting interests and the state that spoils the game by inserting itself as player. He doesn’t explain that so long as the original division of powers prevailed in Canada, fiscal rectitude prevailed also. Provinces borrowed on their sole credit; the federal government’s ability to borrow on the public credit of Canada was constrained by the need to preserve fiscal integrity.

That prudent habit was overthrown by events in Lester Pearson’s government. Private sector unions struck successfully for wage parity with U.S. workers; civil servants, who were given the right to strike, blackmailed governments for wage parity with the private sector, and the resulting leapfrogging destroyed the wage gap that had compensated for Canada’s inherently lower productivity. In the same period, Ottawa imposed a British-style national health scheme on the provinces by offering to share the cost fifty-fifty. Through this device, the constitutional restriction on provincial governments to borrowing on their sole credit was circumvented by Ottawa’s borrowing for them on the public credit of Canada. This set the course for insolvency.

In 1969, the last year of a balanced federal budget, the federal debt was about $20 billion. In 1984, when Pierre Trudeau resigned rather than face the electorate, the deficit had ballooned to $38 billion — 54 per cent of that year’s revenue — and the debt to $200 billion. By 1991, although the succeeding Brian Mulroney governments cut program spending from an annual average growth of 13.8 per cent to 3.7 per cent, an average prime rate of 10.5 per cent had compounded Trudeau’s debt to $400 billion. Not long ago, when the Canadian Institute of Actuaries studied unfunded liabilities of our health and social programs, it found a $1.2-trillion deficit, half of it due to “free” health care.

No doubt these figures would have made dull reading when set against Saul’s excursions into the works of poets and dramatists — as he says, Canada’s principal creative decisions were not driven by economics — but their absence makes the book unconvincing. Saul puts proper store upon moderation and rightly applauds Canadians’ antipathy toward state violence, but when he confronts “our public financial crisis,” moderation deserts him. He calls the efforts by Ontario and Alberta Premiers Mike Harris and Ralph Klein to restore fiscal health “gross slashing.” They, together with Quebec Finance Minister Bernard Landry, are “buffoons.”

Saul deplores “the traditional anti-intellectualism of managerial circles” together with the leadership roles given to “business managers who tend to have a narrow view of their own self-interest and no view at all of the public good.” It escapes him that every business manager or proprietor perpetually struggles to remain solvent. Of course this is selfish, as is seeking protection from all perils and dangers of the night. Insolvency of a person or a firm is a tragic event; of a nation, it is a disaster.

The public good. Anti-intellectualism. Here is the nub of Saul’s take on, and hostility to, corporatism. That intellectuals tend to share a certain view of the public good is a matter of record. For them, the public good consists in how they think the public should be governed. In his book Intellectuals, historian Paul Johnson noted that Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin had legions of intellectual admirers, “as did such post-war men of violence as Castro, Nasser and Mao Tse-tung,” and that a dozen people picked at random on the street were “at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia.”

Pierre Trudeau, whom Saul praises for reviving “the intellectual, even literary and creative nature of the early Canadian leadership” and for his “intellectually direct public manner,” draws no criticism for changing Canada’s system of government to the Quebec model of legislated rights and entitlements, a model that is federalism’s political opposite and that incorporates his Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the supreme law of Canada. Any law inconsistent with the Charter’s provisions is of no force or effect.

Trudeau called his stratagem “almost a putsch, a coup de force” (Robert Stanfield called it a coup d’état) and boasted afterward that “On the whole the Constitution Act largely enshrined the values I had been advocating since I wrote my first article in Cité libre in 1950.” That was just two years after he left the London School of Economics and personal tutorship by “the most stimulating and powerful influence” he had encountered, namely that of Professor Harold Laski, who wrote: “There cannot, in a word, be democracy unless there is socialism.” Canada’s incomplete experiment is no longer subject to change through evolution; it is to be riveted forever in the values that Trudeau committed to memory in 1950.

With all due respect to Saul, the nation’s wealth springs from the creative efforts of individual Canadians; government’s duty is to ensure that they receive the results of their efforts, after taking a just proportion for its own activity. The left’s idea that government can manage the economy and equalize outcomes through the redistribution of incomes is the prime contributor to Canada’s fiscal disarray. In his book The Ethics of Redistribution, Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote that “redistribution is in effect far less a redistribution of free income from the richer to the poorer than a redistribution of power from the individual to the State.”

Canada’s 30-year conversion into an elitist, paternalistic state is now incorporated in Trudeau’s Charter. Although Saul cites Vaclav Havel’s distress at his inability in 1993 to stop the “nationalists and neo-conservatives” from dividing Czechs and Slovaks, he fails to mention another of Havel’s remarks: “What we have to fear is the emergence of an authoritarian government. . . . A great many people would like to have, at one and the same time, freedom and all the material security given to them by a paternalistic state. The two objectives are completely incompatible.”

The deadening effect of the state’s intrusions in the private lives of the citizens leads it to intrude again. Governments borrow, and debt grows. To pay the cost of borrowing, and to pay the cost of increased material benefits, governments seek more revenues. Taxes rise, and the cycle continues until insolvency threatens, forcing governments to economize. Then comes suffering for society’s most vulnerable, those on the lowest rungs of the income ladder or on welfare. Many of them have been lured into dependence upon the state’s subsidies and have lost the will to work, the will to assume responsibility for their own welfare.

Last year, Ottawa paid $45 billion — 32 per cent of revenue — for interest on the federal debt; add the interest on provincial debt, and about 40 cents of every tax dollar goes to interest. What good accrues to the public when two-fifths of the taxes brings nothing in return? Saul does not ask that question. His cry at the end of the book is for “a constant rebalancing act . . . centred on the redistribution of both money and services.”

Response to Kenneth McDonald’s review

Peter Ryan, Halifax, responds: November 8, 1998

I wish to agree with your review of John Ralston Saul’s Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century. Unlike you, I did not have the time nor the incentive to complete reading the book. I had heard enough comments from Saul during his book tour to tackle his work. However, the more I read, the more disturbed I became. Initially it was his language, notably his use of national when describing the federal government. The mind-set required for national is for the most part at odds with the concept of a federation, a position I thought he was espousing.

Subsequently, his inability to escape late-nineteenth, early-twentieth-century economic views, hobbles his vision of how Canada can strengthen itself and its influence in the coming century. Comments that our immigration policies are gradually inching toward rich immigrants are inflammatory, as the 1998 plan calls for this segment to be only 10 per cent of the total.

Finally, when Saul said on page 133, that Canada is essentially a poor country, presumably with other poor nations such as Japan, Britain, Italy, maybe Singapore, Holland, and Sweden, I knew he had crossed the line where definitions are changed to support arguments.

I am troubled by a number of commentators, suggesting that Saul is one of Canada’s leading thinkers, for I witnessed more rigor in his polemics than in his scholarship.

Your review was appreciated.

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